Unity Center’s new coordinator envisions center as catalyst for collaboration

In the 15 years since RIC’s Unity Center opened, its mission to promote “opportunities for exploring human dignity, social identity, and cultural equity” has remained at the heart of its efforts. Now, new interim coordinator Antoinette Gomes works to refresh this spirit and vision as she follows in the footsteps of former Unity Center director, Aaron Bruce.

Upon her arrival at the Unity Center, Gomes was avalanched with tasks requiring immediate attention. Yet, in the midst of filing ignored papers, installing new carpets and cleaning, she made a point of taking time to get to know the students who frequent the Center.

“They wanted to see who the new person was, and I wanted to meet them,” she said. “That’s what brings me back to RIC: interaction with the students. I just love it.”

Gomes worked for several years in Student Support Services as a counselor for both the Preparatory Enrollment Program (PEP) and Upward Bound and is familiar with the culture and community of the College.

Gomes said that she hopes the Unity Center can “be a place where people can explore what diversity means at Rhode Island College, and how to use it to their advantage, whether they’re a student or a teacher or an administrator.”

With events including the screening of popular films and documentaries, guest lecturers, how-to workshops, cultural dinners and celebrations, her vision appears well on its way towards realization.

“I’m enthusiastic,” Gomes explained.

Antoinette Gomes, right, interim coordinator of the
RIC Unity Center, greets students, faculty and staff
at an open house for the center.
Through March the Unity Center’s event list remained booked as it celebrated Women’s History Month, and its calendar continues to be saturated with events supported by organizations working closely with the Unity Center.

These student groups – including Harambee, the Latin Students’ Organization (LASO), the Cape Verdean Students’ Association (CVSA), the Asian Students’ Association (ASA), Organization of African Students and Professionals in the Americas (OASPA), LIFE (Live, Inspire, Fight, Educate), Women of Color, RIC Radio WXIN, the Anchor Newspaper, the RIC Rainbow Alliance and Amnesty International – work with the Unity Center, and each plays its own role in the communication and expansion of the Unity Center’s message and outreach.

Through the work of these organizations, and the prospect of more like them, Gomes sees the Unity Center as a catalyst for collaborations across the RIC campus. Currently, pre–professional programs that train students for particular careers – the nursing and education programs, for example – remain segregated from one another. She hopes that through collaboration these divisions can be diminished.

Programs like the Advanced Learning and Leadership Initiative for Educational Diversity (ALLIED) further demonstrate the possibility of achieving this. ALLIED, a project currently spearheaded by Lesley Bogad, associate professor of educational studies, involves the meeting and collaboration of students (particularly from underprivileged backgrounds) who are interested in becoming teachers.

Group members meet once a week in the Unity Center to share their experiences as they work towards this shared goal, while being informed of the pre-professional program’s regulations and deadlines.

Gomes said that the underlying principles of ALLIED could lead to similar work in other pre-professional programs. The school of nursing, for example, shares many attributes with the school of education (a separate application process, its own deadlines and specified regulations), and could greatly benefit from a program that leads students through the process.

These types of projects, while bringing students together, also help highlight the scope of types of diversity with which the Unity Center works.

At the 1994 opening of the Unity Center, the original director, Jay Latimer, stated that the Center’s purpose was to “focus on the cultural and educational aspects of learning and working in a world of people from all backgrounds and colors.”

Today, the center strives to expand the definition of diversity. As Gomes said, today “People think of diversity often in terms of race, and ethnicity, [but] it goes way, way beyond that.”

According to Gomes, in order to appreciate and experience diversity, members of the RIC community need ways of being in contact with people who are simply different from themselves; these differences can include what kind of academic program one is enrolled in, how old a person is, what cultures a person celebrates and even where on campus someone spends his/her time.

Creating the space and opportunity to experience and appreciate these differences is Gomes’ ultimate goal.

“My hope,” Gomes said, “is that somehow, going forward, we can flip that switch so that people understand that they can gain access to the varied perspectives on this campus – it’s really what diversity is.”

Visit the Unity Center online at www.ric.edu/unitycenter.